In United States v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court shaped the state secrets privilege (the “Privilege”) as one akin to that against self-incrimination. In recent litigation, the government has asserted the Privilege in motions for prediscovery dismissal, thus transforming the Privilege into a form of executive immunity. This Article argues that courts must step in to return the Privilege to a scope more in keeping with its status as a form of evidentiary privilege.
After reviewing the doctrinal origin of the Privilege, this Article explores three types of issues implicated by the government’s invocation of the Privilege. The government, in calling for judicial deference to executive assertions of the Privilege, often relies on (1) separation of powers arguments or on (2) arguments sounding in institutional competence. Courts are often swayed by such arguments and thus give relatively little consideration to the (3) conflict of interest inherent in the government’s assertion of the Privilege and the impact of the successful invocation of the Privilege on the rights of individual litigants.
This Article then proceeds to address arguments that Congress can provide a check on executive abuse of the Privilege. The Article argues that, assuming that Congress has constitutional authority, it lacks the will or the institutional competence to provide a proper solution to the problems raised by the Privilege. Instead, the Article contends that since courts created the Privilege, courts are best positioned to rein it in. The final section of the Article provides examples drawn from case law illustrating mechanisms whereby courts can protect state secrets while also giving litigants adverse to the government their day in court.